Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s only novel. The ill-fated (and, some would add, twisted) relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy shocked readers when the book came out. Today, the story about the lovers on the English moor is so well known, it’s iconic.
1. Emily Brontë grew up on the moors.
Emily spent most of her life in Haworth, Yorkshire, with her siblings Charlotte, Anne, and Branwell; she was a recluse and had few friends other than her family. At the time, the back door of her father’s parsonage opened onto the moors. Emily, a nature lover, was intimately familiar with this wild landscape, which she depicted in Wuthering Heights. Today you can walk many of the places mentioned in the novel.
2. The setting might have been inspired by a real farmhouse.
Emily may have based the farmhouse Wuthering Heights on a real place named Top Withens. Although Top Withens is now a ruin, when Emily was alive, it was a working farmhouse. Originally called “Top of th’Withens,” it’s located on an isolated, windswept hill overlooking the valley. While some of Wuthering Heights’s architectural details are closer to nearby High Sunderland Hall, Top Withens is accepted as the inspiration for the house in the book. It’s now a well-known tourist destination.
3. Wuthering Heights was self-published.
After being rejected by publishers, Emily and Anne paid the considerable sum of 50 pounds to publish Wuthering Heights and Agnes Gray together in one volume. Knowing that female writers weren’t respected, the sisters used male pseudonyms: Ellis Bell for Emily and Acton Bell for Anne. (Charlotte published Jane Eyre that same year with a traditional publisher under the name Currer Bell.)
4. Hindley Earnshaw was similar to Branwell.
While Emily was writing the novel, Branwell was living in the same house succumbing to alcohol and opium addiction, a situation that was accelerated by the end of his affair with a married woman named Mrs. Robinson. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s brother Hindley Earnshaw descends into alcoholism after his wife Frances dies. “His sorrow was of that kind that will not lament,” the book says. “He neither wept, nor prayed; he cursed and defied; execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation.”
5. Wuthering Heights is not a romance novel.
People tend to think of Wuthering Heights as a romance—in fact, it was even voted the greatest love story of all time. But the book is closer to a gothic novel than a romance. For one thing, the love story between Heathcliff and Cathy only takes up half the book. The second half is about what happens after Cathy’s death, which involves her daughter, Hareton, and Linton. In addition, Heathcliff isn’t a romantic hero, but an obsessive abuser. His relationship with Cathy is sometimes disturbing—for example, he breaks the side of her coffin so that, when he dies, they can decompose together. Clearly, this guy has issues.
6. The book was panned by critics.
Wuthering Heights shocked Victorian critics with its violence, passionate characters, and amoral plot. While some reviewers admired its creativity, others downright hated it. Graham's Lady Magazine wrote: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”
7. Emily died thinking Wuthering Heights was a failure.
Wuthering Heights came out in December 1847. A year later, in December 1848, Emily died at age 30 from tuberculosis. Her brother Branwell had died in September, and Anne would soon follow in May 1849, leaving only Charlotte alive. Emily would never know that she’d written a book that would become a classic of English literature.
8. Charlotte Brontë shaped how Emily was perceived.
In 1850, Charlotte put out a revised edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Along with removing typos and altering the Yorkshire dialect, Charlotte wrote a preface that revealed all three of them to be women writers. She also tackled some of the criticisms of Emily. Among other things, she blamed the wild nature of the novel on Emily’s rural upbringing in Yorkshire, painting her as a “nursling of the moors.” She also suggested that Emily didn’t know what she was doing when she was writing, for she had a creative gift that “strangely wills and works for itself.” The new edition turned critical perception to the Brontes’s side, but also created myths about Emily that still persist.
9. Wuthering Heights has been adapted many times.
Film adaptations range from a 1920 silent film—now lost—to the 1939 version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon; there was also a 1992 adaptation starring Sinead O’Connor as Emily and a film released in 2011 featuring Kaya Scodelario and James Howson. Since the novel is an international classic, it has been adapted by other cultures as well, such as the 1966 Hindi film Dil Diya Dard Liya or the 1988 Japanese movie Arashi Ga Oka. Other recreations include musicals, ballet, opera, and the TV movie Wuthering High School.
10. Wuthering Heights inspired other artists, too.
Many have used Wuthering Heights in their own work. Sylvia Plath wrote the poem “Wuthering Heights” about visiting Top Withens; in turn, her husband Ted Hughes wrote a poem about her writing that poem. The story of Wuthering Heights has been reimagined in other novels, such as Windward Heights by Maryse Condé, which is set in Cuba and Guadeloupe, and the book has inspired paintings, graphic novels, and a Monty Python skit. There’s even a roleplaying game. And of course, there's the Kate Bush song (above).
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has updated for 2022.